That will mean that for the second time in 16 years, Democrats will have lost the White House despite winning the popular vote.
With votes still trickling in, Clinton held about a 200,000-vote edge in the popular contest, even as Trump appeared headed for a stronger Electoral College win than George W. Bush secured in his first election ― when he lost the popular vote by 500,000 ballots.
How could that happen? The short answer is key Democratic voters didn’t bother to go vote, while white Republican voters in rural areas of swing states did.
In 2000, turnout was low, with a 55.3 percent turnout by eligible voters helping to hand Bush the White House after the infamous contest in Florida was decided by the Supreme Court. Based on initial vote tallies, turnout for the 2016 election will be the lowest since then, when Al Gore won the popular contest, but lost the Electoral College, 271 to 266.
Trump is doing better. And just 55.7 percent of people eligible to vote ― about 128 million people ― showed up at the polls, according to early estimates.
That’s a huge drop from President Barack Obama’s first election, when 131 million people ― 62.2 percent of eligible voters ― went to the polls. Even in the less-inspiring 2012 contest, 130 million voters turned out, or about 58.6 percent.
Exactly which populations didn’t show up, and where, is still somewhat uncertain, but some trends look pretty clear.
The Washington Post found that Trump ran up margins in small cities and rural areas in swing states like North Carolina, while Clinton merely matched Obama’s 2008 margins in the big urban areas. In Philadelphia, Obama got about 600,000 votes then. Clinton had about 560,000 Tuesday.
White working-class voters in the rural areas turned out in huge numbers and voted even more heavily for Republicans than before. This is what made Virginia so close and tilted North Carolina to Trump.
And the Democratic voters in those areas stayed home. “Democratic voters engaged early, but in those rural and Midwestern areas, they disengaged later,” said Michael McDonald, who runs the United States Elections Project. “On Election Day, they didn’t show up.”
McDonald said part of their apathy was probably a response to Trump’s attacks on Clinton. But Democratic strategist and former Bill Clinton adviser Doug Sosnik said Hillary Clinton bears some of the blame.
“Hillary Clinton in many ways represents a world many people in this country would like to move on from,” he said, adding that young and minority voters were “unenthusiastic about Clinton.”
Sosnik credited the “emerging populist movement” of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with “reshuffling the deck from blue to red.”
“People feel like they’ve gone backwards … that the world is changing and they’re being left behind,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a watershed moment in changing our politics going forward.”
A clear example of Trump’s strength in rural areas comes in Minnesota’s Red Lake County near Grand Forks and the North Dakota border. In 2012, Romney won this county with 50 percent when 1,963 people voted. Trump won the county by 61 percent with a lower turnout of 1,871.
According to a New York Times review of exit polls, Trump increased the GOP margin from 2012 with men by 5 percentage points. Clinton, the first woman nominated by a major party for president, only increased the Democratic share of female voters by 1 point.
Exit polls even suggest that Trump increased Republican support from minority groups including African-Americans, Latinos and Asians, although it’s unclear how many of those voters already leaned Republican or jumped over from the Democratic side. Some experts, however, argue that exit polls are not reliable tools of measuring minority voters.
The biggest shift among demographic groups toward Trump came from people making $30,000 or less. The poorest Americans increased their support for Republicans by 18 percentage points from 2012. Clinton still won among those with $50,000 or less in annual income, while Trump won those making more.
And according to 538’s Nate Silver, Trump’s biggest gains all came in states with large white, working-class populations. There were double-digit shifts from Romney’s vote totals to Trump’s totals in Iowa, Maine, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota and West Virginia. Trump’s wins in Iowa, Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, Michigan and Ohio provided the Electoral College votes needed.
If the results hold up, Democrats will have won the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections. No party has done that “since the formation of the modern party system in 1828,” Ronald Brownstein reported in The Atlantic on Monday.
Before the Democrats’ current streak began, the Republican Party had won the popular vote five times in six tries. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan each won twice, and George H.W. Bush won once. Jimmy Carter was the only Democrat to win a presidential election between 1968, when Nixon won his first term, and 1992, when Bill Clinton defeated Bush for re-election. All those Republican winners also won the Electoral College.
Bill Clinton won the popular vote twice, both times with less than 50 percent of the total. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, but lost the Electoral College and the presidency. George W. Bush won re-election in 2004. Barack Obama won twice. And now it appears Clinton has won the popular contest as well. That’s six out of seven.
That record won’t comfort Democrats. But the system is designed to produce these sorts of confusing results. The U.S. constitution gives rural areas disproportionate power in the political system. The framers of the Constitution didn’t want to give any state too much power. Because rural voters and rural states tend to be whiter than the general population, this has the effect of giving white non-Hispanic voters more power over the outcome of the election than black, Hispanic or Asian voters.
The Democrats’ popular vote streak underscores the impact that shifting demographics have had on the last few elections.
The U.S. population has been growing more diverse, more educated, younger and less religious for the last several years, all trends that favor Democrats. The 2016 electorate has been projected to be the most diverse in U.S. history.
It’s not just the country as a whole that’s growing more diverse. States that are critical to presidential elections, like Florida, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, are also experiencing population changes. But this year, as in 2000, it wasn’t enough.
One of the reasons the framers created the Electoral College was to protect the U.S. from demagoguery and authoritarianism. Alexander Hamilton’s “besetting fear was that American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who mouthed populist shibboleths to conceal their despotism,” according to his biographer Ron Chernow.
Apparently Trump is not a fan:
Kate Sheppard and Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting.